Ivonne is the wife of Anthony Thompson. Anthony served as a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy and suffered a traumatic brain injury in Iraq in 2007. Since then, Ivonne has been his caretaker. In her interview she discusses how Anthony was injured, what his recovery has been like and how she and her family have coped with the situation.
Interview conducted on January 14, 2018 in Houston, Texas
Present: Richard Hayden, Ivonne Thompson, Ivelisse Estrada (Ivonne’s mother), AJ Thompson (Ivonne’s son) and Louis Roark
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Ivonne Thompson: Ivonne Francesca Thompson.
RH: Where are you form originally?
IT: I am originally from Puerto Rico.
RH: Where do you currently reside?
IT: We live in Houston, Texas.
RH: What do you currently do?
IT: I am a caregiver for my husband who was injured outside of Fallujah about ten years ago.
RH: What’s your husband’s name?
IT: Anthony Cavett Thompson.
RH: What branch of the military did he serve in and what years?
IT: Anthony was a Navy Corpsman. He was US Navy from 2003 to 2010.
RH: OK. What unit was he in?
IT: He was in Second Battalion, Seventh Marines, Fox Company.
RH: Perfect. What was his rank when he got out?
IT: When he got out he was an HM2. Hospitalman Second Class?
RH: Hospital Corpsman Second Class so Petty Officer Second Class.
RH: How did you and Anthony meet?
IT: Anthony and I met through a mutual friend. It was his best friend at the time since high school. His best friend was a bartender at a bar that some of my girlfriends and I used to frequent. He started dating one of my girlfriends and they just naturally were in our circle. One night I was out with another group of friends at a different bar and I called his friend Michael up and said, “Hey. I’m over at this place. What you don’t you come over?” He’s like, “I don’t know if I can come over. I’m out with a friend. Bla, bla, bla.” I was like, “Bring your friend. The more the merrier.” He was like, “Alright!”
So they show up. He walks in and right behind him walks in this tall drink of water. Very good looking young stud with a really bad haircut and really bad fashion sense. [RH laughs] But he was quite the gentleman and very sweet. He seemed very interested in everything. I’m quite the talker so he didn’t get many words in that night at all. But he was persistent in the conversation and after that I saw him everywhere I went. We would go out with friends and he would show up. We would go out dancing and he would show up. So it became a frequent thing of him being around. So that’s how we met.
RH: Where was this?
IT: That was here in Umble, Texas which is a suburb just north of Houston at a bar called Mulligan’s. It was a real hole in the wall sports bar that smelled horrible. That was our little watering hole here.
RH: Very cool. Did you get married before he joined the Navy or after?
IT: We got married after he joined the Navy. I met him in July of 2003. We started dating in August and it was then that he told me, “Oh, by the way. I enlisted into the Navy and I leave on the 18th.” I’m like, “Say what?” [laughs] We just took full advantage of the time that he had left. When it got closer to leaving he was like, “I really like what’s going on here. I don’t want to just walk away. Can we please just make this a thing?” I’m like, “I don’t know. Long distance sucks. But you know what? We’ll give it a try.” And we did. The day he left he was like, “I just wanted to let you know that I’m really bad at writing letters so I don’t know how frequently you’ll hear from me.” I’m like, “Well that’s comforting. Thanks a lot.” [laughs] Coincidentally, I would get a letter a week and it was seven days’ worth of writing in one letter. So he was very, very, very persistent.
He just was extremely honest and the sweetest man. Luckily his parents worked for United [Airlines] – Continental [Airlines] at the time – so every leave or every break that he got, he would come home and surprise me and we’d spend the weekend together and have a great time. Then he’d go back and that’s just what our life was.
He proposed in November of ’04. We were married quietly – it was supposed to be quiet [laughs] – in a civil ceremony in May of ’05 in New Orleans. He deployed on July 4th of ’05 and then while he was gone I planned the wedding of my dreams. I couldn’t tell my dad that we were hitched. I was like, “Oh my God. He won’t pay for a wedding. I can’t afford this wedding, I’m a teacher for God’s sakes.” So we kept it pretty hush.
He got back from his first deployment in January of ’06 and we were married here in Houston on June 17th of ’06.
RH: OK. I was going to ask, what was your wedding like? But since you kind of had two?
IT: The actual wedding was spectacular. It was everything that I wanted it to be. And not just I. I say “I” a lot because it’s a woman’s wedding. I mean, come on! The guy doesn’t care. He just shows up. But he was surprisingly very involved in the planning. He wanted to make sure he liked where we were going to have the reception and he agreed on the church that we were going to get married in. He was in it as far as that was concerned. He was like, “I’m not wearing a tux and I’m not wearing my uniform.” “OK.” [laughs] So I made sure I got his requests in.
But the wedding itself was just perfect. The reception hall that we had initially lined up filed bankruptcy, a month before the wedding.
RH: Oh no.
IT: I was about to send out the invitations and I find out about this place. I go for the tasting and this place had closed doors with signs on the window and everything. I freak out. Luckily, the woman that was doing our flowers and cake had her own little company. I called her frantic and she was like, “I got this covered. We’ll take care of it.” In two days I had a new venue and it was even more fabulous than the first one. Everything worked out great.
The wedding itself was the perfect party. I think I sat down for ten minutes and that’s while we ate. The rest was the time we were up. We were mingling, we were dancing. It was a big party. Thankfully my dad was like, “I’m not throwing a wedding and paying for open bar unless it’s top shelf.” I’m like, “Sweet!” [RH laughs] Of course we had top shelf and we took full advantage of that. It was a really nice, big party and I think we both thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
RH: Cool. That was after he returned from the first deployment?
RH: On that first deployment in 2005, what was it like when he deployed? Were you with him the night that he deployed?
IT: I was not. He didn’t want me to be there the day that he left because he thought it would be too difficult for me to watch him leave. It was the first deployment and I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what to expect. He himself, he was like, “I don’t know how much communication I’m going to be able to have. I don’t really know anything.” So the first bit, I think I talked to him probably three times in a month and a half. He was like, “We’re lucky to have this.” I’m like, “OK.” And then as the time went on it was fewer and father between. We used Moto Mail a lot at the time. You know that e-mail system. I would send an e-mail and he would get a letter printout of the e-mail. That was a godsend. I would write him every single day and I would get a letter back every so often or a phone call when he could or an e-mail.
But it was difficult. It was difficult not knowing. I knew where he was and I knew what the mission was obviously but I had no idea what to expect. Of course, when I did talk to him, he never told me the specifics. Even after he came back from that deployment, he never told me the specifics of anything – no details. I said, “Why don’t you tell me?” He was like, “I’m going to deploy again and I don’t want that being stuck in your mind of all the horrible things. I don’t want you to think about that. I don’t want you to worry about that.”
So he gave me just enough to satisfy my curiosity but not too much to really make me worry about what he was into over there. I was just lucky when I did hear from him, either e-mail or anything. I would hear something and I’m like, “Oh my God! I heard this on the news. Bla, bla, bla.” I’d call everybody and all the people that I knew – the wives and the girlfriends and everybody that I knew – and be like, “What’s going on?” He would always assure me, “No news is good news. If you don’t hear from me, it’s OK.” I’m like, “You are killing me.” [laughs] I’m a huge worrywart, always have been, and that just took me over the edge. But then he came back. He got home in January of ’06 and he was healthy and was safe and he seemed fine. Once he was home fine, I didn’t even think about it anymore.
Every once in a while he would start to tell a story and then he would stop himself. I was like, “No. Go ahead.” He was like, “No. I’m going to finish that story.” I would ask him if it bothered him, if he saw things that were hard, and he just never answered. He would change the subject or say, “I’m not talking about that with you.” And he never did. He would talk to his best friends here at home who knew all these stories that I found out after the fact. So, yeah. He kept me pretty sheltered.
RH: You were in Houston during this?
IT: I was in Houston during his first deployment, yes.
RH: I know that you said you spoke to some of the wives. What was your support network like?
IT: We were married before he deployed so he put me in contact with some of his buddies’ wives. He just gave numbers and that’s who I would keep in contact with. I knew Johnny Mendez – I knew his wife already. And what’s his name? I can’t remember his name – another Corpsman buddy. I knew his wife. So those were my points of contact. I wasn’t in contact with key volunteers or anything like that. I guess maybe because, honestly, I don’t think he knew about it early enough to put me in contact with those people. So, that was it, essentially. My support system was those few wives that I knew or girlfriends that I knew and my friends here who could only support me the best way they knew how which was like, “I’m sure he’s fine.” OK, great. Thanks. That’s super helpful. [RH laughs] So that was about it.
RH: So after he got back, he was stationed in Twentynine Palms?
RH: Did you eventually move out to Twentynine Palms?
IT: I did. After we were married, the morning after our wedding we went on a great honeymoon for seven days, eight days, and then we came back. The next day we packed up the U Haul and the day after that we drove to California. We drove to Twentynine Palms. We picked up the keys to our apartment on base and the next thing I knew, there were about seven or eight Marines at my house unloading the U Haul. [both laugh] It was fabulous! All I had to do was stand at the door and say, “That goes here, that goes there.” It was wonderful.
We lived in an apartment on base. Like I said, I was a teacher at the time. I was lucky enough to get a job at the high school in Twentynine Palms. I taught high school Spanish. When I got there the school year hadn’t started yet because it was the end of June. I was just Suzie Homemaker. I’d wake up with him in the morning – make him breakfast, make him his coffee. He’d come home for lunch. I’d make him lunch. He’d go back to work and then in the evening, dinner would be ready, you know? [laughs] That’s how it was for a month until I started work and I was like, “Peace out, homie.” [RH laughs] “You can grab whatever you need to for breakfast and I’ll have dinner ready. That’s the way it’s gonna roll here.” So then I started teaching there at Twentynine Palms High School and that was our routine at that point.
RH: OK. What were your impressions of Twentynine Palms when you arrived?
IT: Umm, the armpit of Hell. [RH laughs] When you come from Houston and everything is super convenient and you know – as I’m sure you know, [pointing to RH and Louis Roark] New York, San Diego – you know these things. You have all these conveniences everywhere. Then you go to Twentynine Palms and there’s really, in essence, two main roads and that’s it. There’s nothing there. [laughs] It blew my mind that I had to drive thirty-five minutes or thirty minutes just to go to a Walmart which I hated or drive the whole forty-five, fifty minutes to go down to the Target in Palm Desert. So it was definitely a learning experience because I was meant to be near a city. I’m not a country girl. I don’t do well without convenience. The only benefit that I had was that I like to drive.
It was interesting because I was like, “Are you kidding me? This is it? This is where we’re going to live?” But after a little while it grows on you. You quickly become a family. For me it was kind of like an ah-ha moment. For him, you have the Marines and you just don’t even think about what there isn’t. And I’m like, “I don’t think so.” It just kind of naturally happens and it becomes your home. You don’t mind the forty-five minute drive to Palm Desert for the movies or good restaurants or whatever. It just kind of becomes what you’re used to. I was really surprised at how quickly that happened because I was like, “I’ll never get used to this. I’ll never get used to this.” The week after we moved there it was like a hundred and twenty degrees for a solid week there. I was like, “This is unbearable. This is ridiculous. I can live in Houston for a hundred degrees with a hundred percent humidity over this shit.” [RH laughs] You know?
But like I said, it just kind of grows on you and it did. It very much did. Initial thoughts were like it’s not going to be good. Then after a while it was like, OK. This is home. You just go with it.
RH: So you got there in June of 2006.
RH: Then he deployed again in January of ’07.
RH: OK. What was it like second time he deployed, especially being there?
IT: It was very different. He had had a couple of training missions. He had to go to some Corpsman thing in Virginia in the month of September, I think it was. He was there for a couple of weeks. Then after that it was Mojave Viper for a month. Mojave Viper was there [at the base in Twentynine Palms]. I would sneak up and drive up and take food up there and hang out at night and whatever.
But when he deployed it was a whole different can of worms. We had found out I was pregnant two weeks before he left. That changed the whole experience.
RH: How so?
IT: For him it was like, “Holy shit. I’m going to be a dad.” For him it was like, “OK. I’m going to be a dad. This is going to be awesome.” Let’s be honest, he was trying to knock me up from the very beginning. He was just so ready to be a dad, ready to be a part of everything and just start this life and have a kid. He was such a man that just wanted and needed children in his life. He would have made an amazing father. He is but definitely he would have been, had he not been injured, that hands-on dad. And so it was just different. The whole vibe that we had before he left was different.
The night before the night before he left. Part of the guys left the day before he did. I don’t know which guys, I just know that Kelly – his wife was my best friend on base. Anthony and Kelly were really close also so we, the four, just did everything together. He left the day before Anthony left. The night before that, it was in preparation of him leaving and so he was slowly packing up his gear. That night we spent the entire day and night just watching movies and we didn’t leave the apartment. It was just chill.
Then after Kelly left it became a little more real. I became really down – just really down. He would hold me and hug me and say, “everything is going to be OK.” I was like, “I just don’t feel like that. I don’t feel it.” I got really weepy and sad. The morning that he left, I think he had to be at the armory at like 4:15 [AM] or something ridiculous. So I get him there and I had baked goodies for him and all the guys. I was that person. I dropped him off at the armory and waited and waited and waited. Then we went to wherever it was – the parking lot where they were meeting – and it was like, OK. They’re leaving at 5:15 [AM]. Change of plans, we’re leaving at 5:45 [AM]. It just kind of kept slowly extending the departure time.
I think they finally ended up leaving at 7:30 in the morning. [laughs] I kept going, “Oh my God, they’re about to leave. OK. We’ve got a little more time.” When they finally said, “Load up. The busses are here.” I just remember he gave me the biggest hug and I was crying. He was like, “Please don’t cry.” I’m like, “OK. I won’t.” He turned around walked away and I was just sobbing. It was very different.
I remember I spent the next couple of days just really down. Of course I had to go back to work and put on a brave face and everything. The only difference between the second deployment and the first was the amount of communication that we had. He had a lot more communication. He was able to call more frequently and he was always wanting to know about doctor’s appointments. “Did you have an ultrasound?” My first ultrasound was the week after he left. He would call to get all the updates, to see how I was doing and how I was feeling. All of that stuff. It was different in that respect. I had a lot of communication up until probably about a month or so before he was injured. He was injured April 20th  and the last time I had talked to him prior to that was about April 10th. I had gone home for my Easter Spring break and I flew in that day. I flew in and out of Vegas because it was easier and more flights and cheaper.
So I landed in Vegas and I was getting on the 15 South and my phone rang and it was a number of course I didn’t recognize. I immediately pulled over right there on the side of the highway and I talked to him. He sounded just horrible. He sounded tired. They had an incident just a few days before and the had been working a lot. He just sounded extremely tired and just beat. Just beat – exhausted. So I was really worried about him. He was like, “I want you to know we’re really busy right now. I don’t know when I’m going to be able to call again.” And I said, “OK.” I think we talked on the phone for about ten minutes which was shocking. Then he was like, “I gotta go, babe.” I said, “OK. I love you. Be careful. Be safe.” And that was the last I talked to him.
Up until about a month prior to that, I had spoken to him on the regular. He said, “It’s starting to get busier here so you’re not going to hear from me as much.” I said, “OK.” And that was it. So it was different in a sense that I was obviously more worried about him because I wanted to make sure he came back. I didn’t want him to miss out on having a child and doing all of that. There was a lot more fear going into the second deployment.
RH: When he was wounded, how were you notified? What happened, if you could walk us through?
IT: So he was injured, like I said, April 20th of ’07. He had been in theater almost a full three months. It was a Friday and I remember because he was injured two days before my mom’s birthday and my mom was turning sixty that year. I had sent flowers to my mom. My mom is a teacher here in Houston so I sent her flowers. I had left campus during my conference period to go pick up some lunch at Santana’s – which I happen to very much enjoy. [both laugh] I think everybody does.
I had just gotten back onto campus and I had hung up the phone with my mom. I walked into the classroom and I was still on conference and, I think, the bell was almost about to ring for my next class to come in. My phone rang and it was a number from base. I was like, “That’s weird. Who’s calling me?” So I picked it up and he said, “Is this,” – how did he say it? – “Is this Mrs. Thompson?” No. “Is this HM3’s Thompson’s wife?” I said, “Yes. This is Mrs. Thompson.” “This is so and so,” – and I can’t remember who he was. He was from Anthony’s Navy chain of command. “This is so and so. I have information about your husband.” My heart immediately sunk. I just had this horrible feeling and I said several expletives and said, “What’s going on? What happened?” He was like, “Ma’am, I need you to calm down.” I was like, “Don’t fucking tell me to calm down. Tell me what happened to my husband.” He’s like, “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to calm down.” I was like, “Just tell me what happened.” He was trying to console me but not doing a very good job of it and he wasn’t just coming out with it. He was like, “I have to read you an official statement.” I said, “Did he die?” At the time I didn’t even think about how you were notified of a death. I don’t think about that, you know? I just know that I’m getting a phone call from somebody on base with information that states he has information about my husband. He’s either dead or a prisoner of war. That’s all I can think. Never would I have ever thought that he had been injured to the severity that he had been injured.
So he calls, he reads the report. I’m freaking out at this point. As he’s reading it, the bell rings. Students are walking in and I’ve already got tears coming down my face. I leave my classroom with my students and I walk to the counselor’s office. She took one look at my face and I can just hear her say, “I’m going to have to call you back.” She hung up the phone and got on the phone again, “I need you to meet me here.” Everybody knew that my husband had been deployed and that he was military as most of the parents there were.
Next thing I know the building principal was there. She was like, “What’s going on?” I said, “My husband’s been injured. They said this and they said this but I don’t know exactly what’s going on.” She said, “OK, go home.” I said, “But I have a class.” They’re like, [spoken with emphasis] “go home.” I went back to my classroom. They already had someone in there. It was amazing to me. I grabbed my stuff, I apologized to my kids and I walked out.
Basically, what the guy told me was everything that had happened. He had lacerations on his arm and legs. Unfortunately they weren’t able to tell me much. They told me he was wearing all of his protective gear. They told me he had lacerations on his arms and legs and, I think, a laceration on his head but they didn’t really tell me anything else. He did tell me that I would have someone from the Marine Corps contacting me with further information.
So I went to my apartment and called a girlfriend of mine who was a Corpsman who worked at the hospital. Her husband was a Corpsman with [2/7] Echo Company. I called her and I said, “Anthony’s been injured. I’m at my apartment and I’m freaking out.” She was like, “OK. I’m actually getting off work now. I will come to your place.” I said, “OK.” She showed up. The head of the key volunteer group was there. The Chaplain was there. The FRO was there – the Family Readiness Officer. The Navy chain of command that called me was there. Next thing I knew I had, like, eight people walking into my apartment to give me all this information.
By then April was there also. She just sat with me and took notes while they talked to me and told me what was going to happen – how he was going to be transported. He had been to three different Battalion Aid Stations in Iraq. He was en route, or about to be transported to Landstuhl [Regional Medical Center in Germany] and that’s all the information that they would have for me. I could keep in contact with the Family Readiness Officer if I had questions or whatever. And that was it. That was how I was told what was going on with him.
RH: In the next few weeks, what happened as he started to make his way back to the US?
IT: He got to Germany and, within a few hours here, I went to the FRO’s office to make the first phone call to Germany. For whatever reason I couldn’t call from my cell phone and we didn’t have a land line. I called from the DSL line in his office and spoke to the nurses that were caring for him. They would give me updates on his vitals and condition but they couldn’t give me specifics. They could only tell me what the monitors say. They couldn’t tell me diagnoses or anything. They just kept telling me that the physician would call me – Doctor Bennett was his name. He was a wonderful man. Doctor Bennett would call me and let me know when he had specifics when he had all that information.
In the meantime, my mother-in-law showed up. She flew out to California and was with me. It was a whirlwind. Then we ended up flying home here to Houston on the red eye Sunday night. We got into Houston Monday morning and it was Monday afternoon that I got the phone call from Doctor Bennett. He said, “Here’s the deal. He has a severed spinal cord at L2. He’s got this, he’s got this. He’s being kept under a medically-induced coma to keep him comfortable for pain and everything else. We’re monitoring him. He is due to be MEDEVAC’ed out to the States to Bethesda tomorrow morning. There are only two things that can keep him from going,” – he had a punctured right lung also – “if, A, he acquires pneumonia or, B, his cranial pressure is too high they won’t fly him. I’ll keep you posted on that.” OK.
So fast forward early Tuesday morning I missed a phone call from Doctor Bennett. I got back in touch with him and Anthony had acquired pneumonia overnight so he wasn’t flying out that day. What he told me was, “In my experience, the wounded warrior does better the sooner family is around them. I am suggesting to the Navy that they put you on orders and fly you to Germany.” I said, “OK. Well, I’m twenty weeks pregnant now. I’m not flying overseas by myself. So what do you want me to do?.” I said, “You need to make orders for my mother as well.” I was horrible. I didn’t even say his mother but my mother. I had already informed his parents of this. They already had tickets to fly to Germany. They were in the airline business so they just did whatever. Then my dad booked a flight. Next thing I know, by Tuesday afternoon we were on a flight to Frankfurt to then drive down to Landstuhl with a stop at Rammstein to get them military passes.
So fast forward, they prep us that he’s going to look different. I say, “OK.” We walk in. He’s in a precaution room – you have to glove up and gown up and mask up and everything. We walk in there and he’s lying there with a sheet like a loincloth but connected to every wire – intubated with an inter-cranial pressure monitor. You name it, he was connected to it, beeping and bonging and everything everywhere. He was extremely bloated and looked swollen but still looked like him. There were no external injuries that caused him to look necessarily different and that was reassuring to me.
So we were in Germany for three days. He ended up flying out on Friday morning. We got there Wednesday. Thursday when I got up to the hospital early that morning, it was probably about 6:30 or so, to see him and get caught up with what’s going on.
IT: I was the person that was super involved and had to know everything. I didn’t want to be told, “Well Mrs. Thompson, this is…” I want you to state it to me like you would talk to any other physician. I can handle it. I’m an intelligent person, I can figure it out. Plus my dad was there to explain the things that I didn’t understand.
They filled me in and the next thing I know, this man comes in and says, “Mrs. Thompson, you need to come with me.” I was like, “I’m not leaving my husband. I’m not going anywhere.” He’s like, “Do you want find out what your baby is?” I said, “Excuse me?” I was supposed to have my ultrasound and find out the gender of the baby that day but in California. My mother-in-law had gone behind my back and talked to some people and made it happen. So my mom and I went down to ultrasound. They took a gazillion pictures. We found out that it was a boy. We were super ecstatic because that’s what he wanted, a boy. He had the name picked out and everything. I go back up there and he’s got his eyes closed but I’m holding this picture in front of his face and talking to him like, “Look. Here’s this, here’s this, here’s this. He’s great. He’s healthy.”
Shortly thereafter, we had a Navy liaison and a Marine Corps liaison that stayed with us the whole time at Landstuhl. At that point the Marine Corps liaison Sergeant Schaeffer – I’m still in touch with him – he was our go-to guy. He ended up telling us, “A couple of Anthony’s Marines are here still.” I said, “Really? Who are they?” It was [Morante and little Mendez and – Steven May. He was a boot that particular deployment. And so I said, “I need to go see Morante right now.” He and I already had a relationship established. We had hung out. We went to the Marine Corps Ball that November before and Anthony left me to go gamble so I stayed at the bar with Morante drinking and taking shots [RH laughs] and doing everything else and being stupid. So I had a rapport with Morante.
I said, “I need to go see him right now.” He was like, “It doesn’t work that way.” I said, “Well you better figure out how to make it work that way because I’m going to see him one way or the other.” He was like, “Alright.” He walks me up there and was like, “You need to stay right here. I need to talk to him first and make sure we get the clearance. I’m like, OK, whatever. I know what he’s going to say but OK, do what you need to do. So he walked in there and I heard Morante say, “What? Bring her in here.” I walk in and there he is with a leg that’s gone, amputated, and his nurse was hooking an IV up to him and he looks up at the nurse and says, “Take it out.” She took it out and stood up on the one good leg he had a stood up and just hugged me. He cried. He kept saying, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t do what you asked me to do.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He goes, “The day we deployed, you told me to take care of Anthony and bring him home safe.” I said, “You did that. He’s home. He’s home safe. You completed that mission, homie. We’re good.” And he just cried and cried and cried.
There was a reporter there at the time from the Dallas Morning News that was on the MEDEVAC flight out of Balad, I think it was, to Landstuhl. She was on the same MEDEVAC flight with Anthony and Morante and May and Mendez and Big Mendez – Little Mendez and Big Mendez. She and Morante got to talking and it just so happens she’s from Dallas and he's from Houston. Anthony’s from Houston. May is from Houston. They get to talking and she’s like, “I think this is my new story.” She followed him and took pictures.
I asked him to tell me what happened. They put us in this waiting room and it was Morante, my mom, my dad, Anthony’s mom, his dad, this reporter and Sergeant Schaeffer. He just told us, minute by minute, everything that he remembers.
RH: So if I could ask you, what exactly did happen?
IT: They were on bridge 286. They were there for, I think, three days total, maybe. Their mission was to identify low-lying vehicles that drove in and out of Fallujah on the highway. Their bridge went over a six lane highway. They had a makeshift station that they did with sheet metal and sandbags and I don’t know what else.
Prior to that, Morante had found out that his father had passed so they had the Chaplain come and do a mass for Morante. Anthony didn’t participate in the mass. He stayed at the station. When that was done, they all went back to their duty stations and Anthony went and lay down while they were on duty. So it was he and seven Marines. He was the only Corpsman. They were all watching and a dump truck with what was estimated to be three thousand pounds of explosives ended up driving under their post and detonating. All eight men were thrown in different directions. The blast itself took a giant chunk out of the bridge. When the guys flew up they had to fall somewhere and Anthony – because he was lying down, I don’t know if it was because he was lying down, he was the only one who was lying down. Even though the report said he was wearing all his protective gear, the guys there told me it was rare that Anthony ever lay down with his [makes a motion around her head like a helmet] what’s it called?
IT: Kevlar on his head. So when the blast went off, it was estimated that he was thrown about twenty-five feet and then fell fifty feet to the ground on the highway below. He fell on a concrete pile of rubble that hit under his flak jacket, shattered his L2. He was unconscious when they found him. All the guys were in different areas. Morante when he opened his eyes, his foot was next to his head. He told me that he could hear the wails and screaming from all the different guys and he did his best.
When QRF showed up, they tended to all the different guys. It was doc Dye that worked on Anthony. When Anthony got promoted post-injury, he came for the ceremony and that’s where I met doc Dye. I sat down with him and I said, “I need you to tell me the state that he was in. I need that for myself.” So he sat down and he was like, “Look, when I got to him he had bleeding from his mouth. He had cuts on his arms, his legs. He had a cut on his head. He was breathing but he was non-responsive. It was a labored breathing. I did what I could do to help him. We got him out of there. We took him back to the FOB and treated him there where it was basically decided we didn’t have enough to finish treating him. He was MEDEVAC’ed from there to Baghdad. He was in Baghdad for, I’m guessing, a matter of hours. Before then he was MEDEVAC’ed from Baghdad to Balad. Balad did everything that they could to stabilize him enough for his flight to Germany. That’s all that I know of what happened. The rest was just getting him stable enough to continue.”
So he sat down and he told us all of that and we’re all sobbing. I go back to Anthony’s room and I told him everything. Then they gave me the update that the next MEDEVAC flight was that following morning, which was Friday morning, and he would be on that flight pending his cranial pressure held where it was. OK. Great.
We waited and the next morning we showed up and the flight crew was already there prepping for the transfer. I walked in and I gowned up and I put on my gloves and walked in. I was talking to Anthony and I was talking to the flight medic and I was like, “What’s going to happen? What’s the deal? What’s the plan?” She goes, “First of all, take all that shit off. Take all that shit off and touch your husband. Feel his skin, kiss him, let him feel you. That’s all that matters right now.” I said, “OK.” So I did. I hugged on him and I kissed on him and I touched his arm and I touched his face. She was like, “That’s all that you need to worry about right now.” I was like, “OK.”
They got him settled and they asked me if I wanted to take the MEDEVAC flight with them. I was like, “Hell no. I just can’t handle it. That’s too stressful for me.” He, Morante, May and Little Mendez – all four of them were on the same MEDEVAC flight out of Landstuhl that Friday morning. And then me, my parents and his parents left the following morning and met him in Bethesda.
RH: How long was he in Bethesda for?
IT: He was in Bethesda eleven weeks. Six in the ICU and five on the med surge.
RH: What was that period like?
IT: It was in Bethesda that we found out what was exactly he had going on. First of all, his spinal cord had not been severed. He had surgery there on his back. At that point they were like, “We know he’s not going to walk so we need to stabilize his back so that when he is sitting in a chair, he can have trunk control.” So when they took him in for surgery, they put two rods in his back from T12, I think, to L4 and then replaced L2 with a titanium cage because L2 was completely shattered. So they did that and his spinal cord actually was completely intact. From the scans, it was bone fragments pinching it that made it seem like it was severed so he had what’s called cauda equina which is an incomplete spinal cord injury.
But it was then that we found out that he had what was called diffuse axonal injury which is the type of brain injury he had. How they described it to me is like shaken baby syndrome. When shaken baby syndrome happens, they have contusions on the frontal and occipital lobe – the front and back. With his injuries, he had contusions on every part of his brain. It was like, with the blast, his brain was shaken inside the skull. It was whipped quickly, almost like a whiplash. But then with the blast, he had contusions on every part of his brain. So their thing is, we don’t know what the outcome is going to be. We know he’s got a severe brain injury and right now it’s just a matter of waiting and time to see how he progresses.
So it was a lot of spending every day there with him, talking to him and telling him, “You’re going to be OK.” And doing procedures like bronchoscopies and monitoring his mental thing by testing his reflexes. I was obsessed with watching his feet for whatever reason. They would come in and take this pen and run it on the base of his feet like they do in the Apgar testing that they do for babies. They would look for pain stimuli to see how he responds to certain discomfort. They would do sternum rubs on him to see if he would do what’s called posturing where he would flex up in response to the pain. So I was obsessed with doing all of that. The doctors would come in and do it and I’d do it three or four times a day – sternum rub, sternum rub. I’d run my nails up his feet. I was obsessed.
It was in Bethesda that he first opened his eyes. It was blank. There was no following anybody. There was no response to noise or anything. He would just open his eyes and it was just like, there. It was a lot of just seeing how much we could get while we were there.
It quickly turned into what decisions we were going to make, where was he going to go next. It was kind of a battle between his mother and myself. Our relationship was very much strained at the time. She saw Anthony as her son and I saw Anthony as my husband and the father of our son. So it was a power struggle for us and it put a strain on our relationship. It was, “I want him to go here.” And I said, “Well, I think he really should go this route.” So it was a tug of war there. We finally came to a decision that he should go to a polytrauma unit through the military, through the DOD, which was down in Tampa – the James Haley VA in Tampa. It was a lot of back and forth.
RH: Where was your son born?
IT: He was born in Tampa. We got to Tampa July 3rd of ’07 and got him settled and got into a routine there. My due date was September 12th, luckily. I told them, “Please don’t tell me it’s September 11th. I don’t think I can handle that kind of curse.” [RH laughs] So it was September 12th. I was healthy and everything was going great. It was really a smooth pregnancy considering the stress and everything else that I had endured during that whole process. He kept getting better every day and more responsive – slow but kept getting better.
I started what I thought were contractions – legit contractions. I panicked and I called my mom – she was in Houston, here – like, “Mom, I swear I’m going to have this baby.” [to Ivelisse] My due date’s not for another two weeks, it was?
Ivelisse Estrada: I went for the Labor Day weekend. I ended up leaving and she didn’t have the baby until the 12th. So around the 6th or so?
IT: So about a week prior I started. She got in the car and drove back and nothing. There was nothing happening. I had my last appointment the day before his due date and it was a blood pressure issue. “Your blood pressure’s creeping up. How bad do you want to have this baby?” I’m like, “It’s September in Florida. How bad do you think I want to have this baby?” [RH laughs] He was like, “OK. Go up to the hospital later, have them check your blood pressure there.” I went back to the hospital, I gave Anthony a shower, I think I packed a bag, maybe.
IE: We went for lunch.
IT: We went for lunch. We did all kinds of things. And then it was about time for dinner. I finished Anthony’s shower and it was almost time for dinner. I was like, “Let’s get out of here and go grab dinner.” We were leaving and I was like, “Wait. I need to stop by the hospital to have them check my blood pressure.” So we pull in and I’m like, “I’m here to get my blood pressure checked.” They’re like, “What’s your name?” I told them and they were like, “Uhh, Mrs. Thompson, we’ve been waiting for you all day.” [RH laughs] I go, “What do you mean all day? The doctor told me to come this evening?” They were like, “Yeah, that meant go ahead and come to the hospital. I’m like, “Well, then he needs to be a little bit clearer.”
I ended up getting admitted right away and the plan was to induce me because I was not progressing anywhere. My body wasn’t doing anything. So I was admitted. I was like, “OK, mom. Go get my bag and go get us some dinner.” That’s where I stayed and then he was born the next afternoon. They started the Pitocin that morning on the 12th and by 4:15 – 4:15 was when AJ was born-ish. Somewhere around there.
I had a girlfriend – Anthony and her husband were roommates. I actually met her in Bethesda. She was my little bosom buddy and we did everything together. She was trying desperately to get Anthony a way to be in the delivery there and they just couldn’t get it to pan out. The hospital where I was delivering was concerned having him in there in the state that I was in so it didn’t happen. But I delivered him great. He was healthy – six pounds, thirteen-and-a-half ounces. Just perfect little boy. That was on a Wednesday and I got out on Friday. That following Saturday morning, one of his physicians told us, “When this baby comes, you need to bring him around Anthony as much as possible. That’s going to be the best therapy for that guy.”
So that Saturday comes and I take AJ over to his room. I introduce them. He was super tense and whatnot. I lay AJ on top of Anthony’s chest. When I did that, Anthony took a deep breath and his eyes bugged out open. He took a deep breath and when he exhaled, his arms came down and he just looked so relaxed and that’s where he stayed. He always kept his arms right here [pulls her arms tight across her chest] because he was always so tense. But when I lay AJ on him, his arms just relaxed.
RH: I just want to make a note. Ivonne just had her arms up by her chest and when he relaxed, brought them down to her side.
IT: Yes. He just lay there. I moved AJ from the chest to that nook in his armpit – that nook right there. That arm stayed nice and chill and relaxed and the other arm just came right back up to his chest and held him. It was the most amazing thing to witness. It was like they had their own little bond that was almost instinct. From that day on, AJ came to the hospital every day. He spent every day there and he learned how to crawl there and he learned how to walk there and he leaned how to talk there. We were in Tampa for three and a half years with Anthony as an in-patient so we spent a lot of time up at that hospital. When he as learning to walk, the nurses bought him a walker, a baby walker. We’d put him in there and he’d go in there and do circles around the unit, pop in and out of rooms and say hello. If someone when like this [holds out arms] he would be like, “Yes. Hold me.” He was like the little mascot for the brain injury floor there. That was kind of our routine for the next three-and-a-half years. It worked for us. It was the only way I could think to make it happen.
I got criticized by some – not on the unit. When I would walk into the hospital pushing a stroller with a newborn, I got a woman who gave me horrible looks one time. She stopped me and said, “Do you have any idea the kind of germs that are in this hospital? How dare you bring that child in here!” I looked at her and I said, “If you can get his father out of a coma then I’ll be glad to take him out.” She was just stone faced and walked away. This isn’t what I asked for. This isn’t what I wanted for my child or for myself or for my husband. But this is the life that we have and we’re going to make due.
I spent every day up there. I was very involved in his care. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to know diagnosis. I wanted to know medications and what medications did what and how they interacted with others. I was so engulfed in everything that had to do with his care and with Anthony that I just breathed it. I didn’t know how much help I was going to have at home so I needed to make sure that I could handle everything that it took to care for him. I was very active in having the nurses teach me how to care for him, teach me how to change Foley catheters. Teach me how to change, when he was trach’ed, trach[eostomy] cannulas and clean everything and how to suction. All of it. I did everything – gave medications, gave feedings. There were nurses in the hospital and I was like, “No, I need to learn how to do it.” So I took a very vested interest. He was my life. That’s how it was for three and a half years.
RH: So after Tampa, did you come back to Houston? No, you went to New Jersey.
IT: We went to New Jersey for a seven month stint for an experimental protocol for – what did I say it was? – severe disorders of consciousness, SDOG. It was a program that used what they called nutraceuticals and stimulants and other medications to somehow spark the brain into building those passageways of healing and reconnection and all that stuff. We were there for seven months and it was very intense for him. It was seven days a week of speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy and it was an hour and a half of each every single day. It was intensive. He responded very, very well to it.
While he was in therapy, I was out making friends. [laughs] The whole fire department of East Orange would come up and visit us. AJ was in Texas at the time because Kessler had a rule that during the winter, during the flu season, no child under, I think, the age of twelve was allowed up during peak flu season. We got up there in November and we stayed until June so he couldn’t be up there because how would I do it? So he came here and he would stay weekdays with my parents and weekends with Anthony’s parents so it worked out great. But it was difficult. It was a challenge.
So we did that for seven months and he did great. I made friends and family there. We went up with two other patients from Tampa and we all became family very quickly. One was the son of a couple and the other one was a husband of a wife. So we were family. All of us went up to New Jersey together and did this program and were quite successful and then it was time for us to go home. We had to go back to Tampa before that and do the transition period from being in a hospital to going home. We were due to come home in September.
He was retired on July 28th of 2010. That’s when he was officially retired. They gave him a full Navy retirement ceremony. They rung him in, they rung him out. It was very awesome. It was really cool. It was a cool way to honor him and it was really emotional.
Anyways, they retired him. That week following his retirement he had a procedure to put in a super pubic catheter which is just a catheter into the bladder straight through the abdomen – kind of safe from trauma to other areas. For long-term it was the best plan. When he had that procedure done, everything went smoothly and all was good. I went home that night after the surgery and I got a phone call at about three or four in the morning saying, “Anthony’s not doing well. His heart rate is through the roof. He’s moaning. We can hear him at the nurse’s station.” He was at the very back of the unit. “We can hear him at the nurse’s station. Can you please come up and just see if you can kind of calm him down?” I said, “Yes. I’m on my way.”
I went up there and sat with him for a while, held his hand, stroked his hand and told him, “You’re going to be OK. Just breathe.” And he calmed down. At 6:00 AM I left. I told them, “I’m going to go get a few more hours of sleep and I’ll be back. Call me if anything happens.” At 9:30 they give me a call and they tell me, “He’s being taken to ICU.” I’m like, “What’s going on?” They’re like, “We can’t control the heart rate. The blood pressure is super low. He’s got a fever. Something is going on and we don’t know what it is.” So I go up there and they actually didn’t take him to the ICU until a few hours later. When they wheeled him in into the ICU and started getting him settled in his room there, they pushed me out of the way and told me to leave. He was starting to have a seizure, a really intense seizure, worse than he had ever had at that point. That’s part of the course for brain injuries sometimes – they have seizures. It was like a grand mal – it was a severe seizure.
So they led me out and they came in. They said, “Something’s going on. There’s an infection somewhere. We don’t know what it is. We don’t know what’s causing it.” For the next day and a half is when everything was up in the air and very questionable. He quickly started turning an ashen color. They determined that his kidneys were starting to shut down. They didn’t understand what was going on. His body was just shutting down.
So I called my parents and my mom was like, “Do you want us to bring AJ?” I was like, “No. I don’t want you to bring AJ. If this is going to be it, this is not how I want him to remember.” They were like, “OK. We’re on standby.” I said, “OK.”
I called his mom. His mom flew out. She was like, “I trust whatever decision you want to make.” At this point his mom and I were much closer. We had gone through our ups and downs and we were finally at a good place. I said, “OK.”
So long story short, his physiatrist, which is the rehab doctor who I had a good rapport with, I called her and said, “I don’t know what’s going on. They’re not telling me anything. They don’t really know. I need something. I need something.” She’s like, “OK. So they’re talking surgery?” She just happened to have a friend who worked at the VA there that was a GI doc and a surgeon – a general surgeon. He got on board. They brought him aboard. He looked at the scans. He’s like, “[Anthony’s] got something going on in his abdomen. We can see it. We don’t know if it’s an abscess. We don’t know what it is but we need to go in and see what it is and see if we can even fix it.” I was like, “Wait, wait, wait. What are you telling me?” He said, “I want to do an exploratory surgery. The problem is that his blood pressure is so low and his heart rate is so high, he has a fifteen percent chance of even surviving the surgery.” I said, “OK but, if you do surgery and you’re able to fix it?” He’s like, “That’s the thing. I don’t know. I don’t know what we’re going to do. But you have to understand,” – it’s funny because he’s talking to me and I’m really concerned and my wheels are turning – “you have to understand, if he has this surgery, it is not going to improve his mental state.” I look at him and I say, “No shit, Sherlock.” [both laugh] Do you think I’m an idiot or what? I said, “Right now I just want him to live. I’m not an idiot.” He was like, “OK. You say the word.” I call his mom and I’m like, “Here’s what they’re telling me.” She was like, “We’re on the same page. Fifteen percent is better than nothing. Let’s go. He would want to go out fighting if he went out.”
So within the thirty minutes, they had him prepped and ready and they skirted him off to surgery. They opened up his abdomen and they found his whole upper abdominal cavity was just filled with pus. Apparently there was a perforation in his colon. They don’t know at what point it had happened. It had leaked into the abdominal cavity causing the infection, causing the organs to shut down. He was septic at the time – all this stuff. They basically flushed out the entire abdomen, put everything back in, and said “We wait. The next seventy-two hours are crucial.” And he rocked it. He rocked it. He went through the next seventy-two hours and he kept getting better. He kept getting better then he would take a step back and that’s kind of how it went.
We didn’t go home in September as planned. He spent about a month in the ICU after surgery. At that point they also had to resect part of his intestine so now they had to do a colostomy. It was a big old mess. But anyways, he was fine after the fact. It took a while but he just came back fighting and he did a kick ass job. So on December 7th of 2010, he was finally stable, everything good, everything ready to go and we brought him home. An he’s been home ever since. He’s progressively gotten better. He’s doing things now that he wasn’t even doing when he was at his peak in New Jersey. He’s responding with eye blinks. If I’m in the room, it’s very rare that he does not have his eyes on me at some point. Even if I’m walking around the room, his head turns around and follows me.
IE: When [Ivonne’s] not home and she calls and you put the phone to his ear, he’ll go crazy. He’ll follow it. He’s in tune to her, incredibly in tune to her.
IF: He keeps pushing forward and we live our life as normal. As we say, we live our new normal life.
RH: Alright. You’ve answered a whole bunch of my questions.
IT: I usually do, unfortunately. [laughs]
RH: No! This is great. This is wonderful. So you’ve been home since 2010, what are some of the things that you do each day to help you move forward?
IT: I look at AJ. It’s really, really simple. He wanted that child more than I ever knew I did. That little ten year old is our reason for continuing. Because I guarantee there are days where I open my eyes and I’m like, Uggh. I don’t want to adult today. I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to get out of this bed. I don’t want to have to get him out of bed. I don’t want to do it. And then I think, Oh shit. AJ has got to be at school in a half hour so I kind of got to get my ass moving. I get up and I get him moving and I watch his interactions with Anthony. Now as he’s getting older, he’s got so many things distracting him. But when he was little – when he was four and five years old – he would crawl in bed with Anthony and just lie there and just cuddle with him and love him. I’m like, that is the reason I have stuck around. That’s the reason that I do everything that I do. That is the reason that I love that man because he gave me that child.
Now just seeing Anthony and seeing him progress – even with the tiniest little improvements and the tiniest little new things that he does, that in and of itself, I’m like, something’s right here. Something is definitely right. It’s working for us. So as long as it’s working for us and he’s good and he’s healthy and AJ’s good and he’s healthy then I am great, you know? It’s my new purpose – to take care of them and to keep them good.
My purpose is to bring more awareness to traumatic brain injury. I’m involved as I can be with that. I testified in front of Congress about traumatic brain injury. I was the fellow for the Elizabeth Dole foundation working on caregiver legislation. So I try to be involved as I can be. But honestly, my reason is those two boys. They are my new purpose in life.
RH: This is sort of piggybacking on that. What are some of the things that your family has done to move forward?
IT: My family as in Anthony and AJ? My family as in extended?
RH: Extended family. Everybody around Anthony.
IT: You know, it’s a lot of encouragement. It’s a lot of encouragement and treating him like Anthony instead of treating him like he’s – I don’t know. I don’t know how to describe it. You always see people that when someone is injured or disabled or whatever, they treat them little different. My family doesn’t do that. My dad still calls Anthony Popeye. From the very first moment he ever met Anthony, he’s always called him Popeye. That’s just his name. My dad has a very loud voice – a deep, boisterous voice. He walks into my house and hits him on the arm really hard and is like, “What’s happening Popeye?” He looks right at my dad and is zoned in on my dad. It’s keeping the normalcy of life – the ins and the outs and the everydays. When people come over for dinner, it’s sitting and having a meal. For me, it’s not babying him. He’s not a child. He’s still a grown man. He’s even older now than he was.
It’s the normalcy. It’s treating him the way they would have treated him no matter what. It’s that interaction, that constant interaction. That’s the best encouragement that we can have from family and from friends – my friends.
His friends? They’ve been hit or miss, unfortunately. His Marine brothers have been phenomenal. They’ve been great. They’ve supported me, they’ve supported him. They’ve been wonderful. But his high school guys, they don’t really get it. Their big thing is, “It’s just really hard to seeing Anthony like this.” My response is always, “I know. I see him like this every single day. But I don’t have a choice.” I do but this is the choice I made. “So you either hop on board or I have no use for you.” Do you know what I mean? I don’t have it in me to be sympathetic to their feelings. As shitty as that sounds, I don’t. It’s like, man up already. He’s still here, he’s still the same person. When all the Marines came for the bridge reunion in April.
RH: Real quick. The bridge reunion was April of 2017?
IT: Yes. We did it the same weekend so April the 20th. That weekend. We had eleven Marines in this house and they were cracking jokes and being dirty and busting his chops for everything that he ever did and making fun of him, imitating him. All of it. He loved it and ate all of it up. He had a big old smile on his face. He was watching everybody as they talked. He was in it. If his high school buddies could just do the same and just come in here and say, “You know what Anthony? You’re a piece of shit for X, Y and Z. You’re lazy,” or whatever. The Marines came in here and were like, “Garfield. Seriously? When are you gonna cut it out?” That was his nickname that they gave him. It’s that normalcy that I love and I seriously think that pushes him and continues to encourage him every day.
RH: Very cool. You talked about this a little bit so it’s kind of a follow up. How have his fellow sailors and Marines reacted?
IT: I can honestly say that his Marines have played a bigger role in his life post-injury. I think from what I can think of, there have been, maybe, two Corpsmen that have come to visit. One we were very good friends with lives twenty-five minutes away. He invited us to his wedding. Sent us a “hey, the baby is born” card and Christmas card every year and he has yet to come see him.
Another one lives in Austin whose name I can’t think of but that’s beside the point. His family lives thirty minutes from here. He would come and visit his family all the time and has never set foot in this house. Had the nerve to friend me on social media but then never actually messaged me or sent me anything or said anything to me. His Marines have been great but the Corpsmen have been hit or miss. I don’t know if it’s because it’s hitting close. I don’t know. I don’t know what it’s like to be the person that did the same job, was there doing the exact same thing as he was, and look at him and say, “That could have been me.” I don’t know if that’s what it is. I don’t know if it’s guilt. I don’t know what it is that causes them not to be able to set foot in this house and come see him but that would mean a whole hell of a lot to me if they did. Especially those particular two because those are the ones that we socialized with. Not just him at work but on a social level. I don’t get it. So that’s been a hard pill for me to swallow.
But they’ve been great. They call and check.
RH: You mean the Marines?
IT: Well, even some of the other Corpsmen, other guys that I didn’t know as well have reached out to me on social media or kept in touch with me that way. For the reunion there was a Corpsman guy there. He came and hung out and whatnot. There are those guys that can just tuck it away, whatever it is that they’ve got going on and say, “This is more important than that.” Granted, like I said, I don’t know what it’s like to be in that position and if you can just tuck it away. I don’t know. But we’ve had a good support system. Even the Marine liaisons and Navy liaisons we’ve had along the way post-injury have all been fantastic. They’ve been there one hundred percent to support us and back us up and to help me when the Navy was trying to separate him eight months post-injury. They wanted to med board him. I was like, “Are you kidding me? He has a severe traumatic brain injury. We haven’t even touched into half of the stuff that is out there for him.” I had to fight that tooth and nail but I did. [to Ivelisse] I put it off, what, four years?
IE: They started when he was in Bethesda.
IT: Right. But I put it off how long? Four years?
IT: Until I said, “OK. We’ve done everything that there is to do right now for people in his condition. It’s time.” I was like, “OK. I’ll sign the paperwork now. I’ll do X, Y and Z.” That’s when he was finally separated. But four years I had to fight tooth and nail to keep him in.
RH: Overall, how would you describe the quality of his care? That’s a big question.
IT: The quality of his care was impeccable. All but seven months of his care was done at a military hospital. There’s always one or two. For instance, when we were at Bethesda, there were a couple of Corpsmen that I was like, “Mmm. They’re not allowed in this room anymore.” But the other Corpsmen there and Bethesda were phenomenal. I keep in touch with them too. They’re constantly checking on Anthony. “How is he? Oh my God, I can’t believe how big AJ is. I remember when he was in your belly.” Just crazy like that. And then you get to Tampa and we were at the VA hospital there – that was also a polytrauma unit. There were always a couple of nurses that just were a little too lazy for my liking. So very politely – I say politely but apparently I was not so polite – asked them not be allowed in his room. [RH laughs] But the physicians – I’m so glad that I made the decision to continue on with military hospitals because I honestly don’t think, if I would have gone civilian at that point for rehab and all that stuff, I don’t think he would have made it as far as he did. At the time, the VA polytrauma was not pushing to get him out through the program quickly. They were like, “OK. This just came about. We can do this. Should we try it?” It was like, “Heck yes. Let’s try it.” “There’s a risk.” “Really? He joined the military so obviously he enjoys some sort of risk. I think he will go about it in his care as well, in his recovery as well.” We tried everything there was to try and the doctors were phenomenal – absolutely phenomenal. I don’t think I came across a doctor that I did not like. And even still, we do his care here in Houston through the VA and, poor VA, they’ve gotten such a bad rap over the years. They have taken impeccable care of Anthony.
RH: That’s good to hear.
IT: There’s not a single ball that has been dropped in Anthony’s care by the VA or military hospital in general. We’ve been very lucky. I had a friend tell me, “I don’t know if it’s luck or the fact that you are not quiet when things aren’t going well so they’re going to make sure they dot their i’s and cross their t’s. But whatever. I don’t think it’s luck, honey.” [RH laughs] Well whatever it is, I’m OK with it. He’s been taken very good care of.
RH: Good. Have Anthony’s injuries and everything you’ve gone through affected you spiritually?
RH: How so?
IT: I was raised Roman Catholic. Mom made us go to church as kids every Sunday and then that slowly turned into once in a while. Then that turned into, OK, it’s Easter and Christmas. And then it just kind of turned into sheer laziness like, “I don’t want to go to midnight mass. We’re just not going to do it.”
Then when [Anthony] and I were talking marriage, I was definitely more involved. I think he stopped going to church after his dad passed. He was raised Roman Catholic as well on his dad’s side of the family. His thing was to go to church with his dad. When his dad passed, he just kind of didn’t do it anymore. I think the only time he ever went to church was our wedding or the wedding of a friend and that was it. I couldn’t get him to go to church with me if I tried. But I still went to church almost every Sunday on base. I enjoyed the services.
But when he was injured, I would get the phrase, “God only gives you what you can handle. Just pray about it and he will come out of this just fine. God will give you your miracle.” It was all super spiritual in how to deal with this traumatic time in our life. I finally just said, “Do you know what? God isn’t doing shit for me right now.” I ask him to help Anthony and I ask him to continue to give me strength and I’m kind of finding that I’m kind of doing it all on my own and He doesn’t care. I started to doubt everything about God and religion and I kind of just stopped going.
I found that, I don’t know, religion became very tainted for me. I kept seeing all these bad people get these wonderful opportunities in life. People that I knew weren’t very good people just kept getting all these things handed to them. I’m like, “How can God give someone who is such a bad person all these wonderful things and give my husband who is an amazing person, the nicest guy on the face of the Earth – would not hurt a fly, would not kill an animal, would not punch anybody – and he’s making him suffer.” It doesn’t make sense to me. How can God give us a son and not give him the father he deserves?
I’m seeing all of these things and I’m like, “I’m done.” I’m done with Him. He obviously doesn’t think we deserve the life we had planned. Why should I put my faith in Him? Unfortunately that’s kind of where I go. And now people will say, “You know what? God has really protected you.” I’ll say, “God hasn’t done shit.” I have taken it upon myself and fought tooth and nail with this man to get to where we are today. They’re like, “Well, don’t you think that’s God’s way?” I’m like, “I don’t know. I just know that I made the decision that I was going to do what I needed to do for my family and that’s what I’ve done and that’s why we are where we are.”
So, I don’t know. Right now I’m not in a very good place with Him. I even tried a Bible study of all things. The women were lovely but they were a little too, I don’t know the word for it. They were a little too religious, I guess. [RH laughs] I just didn’t have it in me and I was like, “Do you know what? I’m good.” I don’t know if I believe in necessarily God. I do believe there’s something greater that controls. I don’t know – I feel like that might be a thing. But as far as religion, I couldn’t get into it. I just couldn’t get into it.
RH: Has Anthony’s injury changed your view of life and death and, if so, how?
IT: Absolutely. First of all, I was a worrywart to begin with. I mentioned that earlier. I worried about everything and when Anthony was injured, my anxiety level went through the roof. I’ll give you a prime example. My mother was here in Houston one Christmas. AJ was about a year old – he was a year old. He had just turned a year in September. There was this Santa that they brought up to the hospital for the kids. I was trying to reach my mom all day and I couldn’t reach her, and I couldn’t reach her, and I couldn’t reach her. I knew there was bad weather here in Houston – it was December and it was cold. She was out and about and I was like, “OK. Something’s up.” When I couldn’t reach her for the fourteenth time that I called her for the day, I said, “Something’s wrong.” So I called the police department and asked if there were any wrecks in her area or any reports of anything. She was like, “No. What’s going on?” I was like, “I’ve been trying to get a hold of my mom and I can’t get a hold of her!” It was to the point where I felt like I was suffocating – like I was suffocating in my fear that something horrible had happened to her. And then all of a sudden I got a phone call from her. No, I got a phone call from the police saying that they had found my mom, that she is fine and that she would call me. [laughs] And they had called her. She got home and they contacted her.
IE: I got home and the phone rings and there is this Sergeant – this lovely policewoman – on the phone [RH laughs] and she says, “Mrs. Estrada? I’m so-and-so and I’m calling because your daughter has called worried about you. She hasn’t been able to get a hold of you.” She was so lovely. She said, “I understand because I’m the same way with my mother.” [RH laughs] “Please call her and set her at ease.” So I call her and I said, “I’m fine. My phone was in the bag.”
IT: And when I hung up with her, I just started sobbing. Every instance has been like that. When I can’t get a hold of someone – one my family members or friends – I go in pure catastrophic mode. The worst has happened. They’re lying in a ditch somewhere. That’s why they haven’t called for help. Whatever the case may be, something horrible has happened. And I’ve gotten to the point where if I can’t get a hold of them and they live in my area, I will get in the car and start driving towards them. Then I’ll get a phone call halfway there and turn around. I’ll not even say anything. I’ll just turn around and go right back home.
It has changed my perception of life and how fragile life is. This happened. Yes, he was in war-torn Iraq and I get that. But it was such a snap of a finger and our lives were changed forever. And it can happen anywhere. I have friends who’ve lost loved ones. Loved ones have died at the snap of a finger. I’m like, “Oh my God. That can happen to anybody.” Just by the snap of a finger your entire life can change. So, yes. I go into sheer catastrophic mode.
I got to the point where my anxiety was so bad that I was taking myself to the emergency room because I thought I was having a heart attack. Every time I’d go, they were like, “Miss Thompson, you’re fine. You are having anxiety.” I’m like, “I swear to God I’m dying of a heart attack. I can’t breathe, I feel like I’m suffocating. I’ve got sweats. Something’s wrong. They’re like, “You are fine.” After about six times of taking myself to the emergency room, my doctor had been trying to get me on something to help with the anxiety. I kept saying, “No, no, no, no, no. I am not that person. I do not need medications to help with my anxiety. I do not need that. I will not do that.” And finally I was like, “OK. I think it’s time.” I finally just submitted and I have been in a much better place since then. I’m not going to sit there and say, “Everybody needs to be on drugs! It’s fabulous!” No. But to me it got to a point where it was affecting my life.
IE: Plus, you also went to therapy, too.
IT: Yes. I started therapy. I was trying to somehow grab the reins of my life and take control back. You know, my life is in a place where there’s so much that is out of my control. When it comes to Anthony’s health, when it comes to his care, so much of his state is out of my control. He could get sick and die and there’s nothing I could do about it, do you know what I’m saying? And that realization was just too much for me to handle and that’s when my anxiety started up.
Finally I got put on medication and it just has calmed me. I was talking to a girlfriend and I was like, “I’m taking this.” And she was like, “Oh, me too. I’m taking such and such milligrams.” I was like, “Oh, that’s a lot.” She was like, “Wait a minute. How much do you take?” I was like, “Ten.” She was like, “Oh my God! You’re barely on anything.” It works for me so I’m OK with that. [laughs] My biggest fear is I didn’t want to be on a medication that didn’t allow me to feel. I still wanted to feel life, I just didn’t want to fear life. I had gotten to the point where I was just fearing life. I felt like anything that I did could be the end of it. I panicked and I couldn’t do that anymore. It was taking a toll on me. So I’ve been good ever since. You do what you can to survive, I guess. [laughs]
RH: Good to go. Last couple of questions but before I get to them, you said you testified before Congress. What was that like?
IT: I was asked by a group [named] Care Coalition. They work for Special Ops – Special Operations Command. They’re an advocacy group through Special Operations Command. When the Navy was trying to med board Anthony, my Navy liaison at the time was trying to be very helpful but was also not giving me all of the information. So he was kind of working against me as opposed to for me and for Anthony. So I was kind of at my wit’s end. Anthony’s roommate at the time who was an Army Ranger, his wife reached out to Care Coalition. Her advocate through Care Coalition said, “She really needs your help. I know he’s not special ops but they need your help. They’re doing him wrong.” So they reached out to me and they started supporting me and they became amazing advocates. To this day they are still wonderful advocates for Anthony and for myself.
Through them I had several opportunities to speak at some of their conferences for wounded warrior care and all that stuff. Through that I went to DC. His roommate’s wife and I both went to DC with another big group of people, for a wounded warrior family summit. It was talking with the Secretary of Defense and, I think, Admiral [Michael] Mullen – who I think was the Admiral at the time. He was involved in the process and all these bigwigs and Congress and this and the other.
So we went to this big family summit and we just talked about how our wounded warriors are being cared for – how everything kind of works in that program. One of the things was how do we as caregivers fit in the formula? And what is it that we need in order to continue to care? At that point the DOD was starting to realize, wait a second, if we take care of these men and women to the point where they are well enough to go home and have their families take care of them, their families are saving us a lot of money for caring for them which, in turn, helps the wounded warrior in the long run. It’s the best scenario for both entities.
So they came to caregivers and said, “What do you guys need from us to be able to continue to do this?” It was our first opportunity to be heard as a caregiver group and have them understand what our lives are like. That was what it was. We were talking to the Secretary of Defense – I can’t remember his name at the time but that guy – and Admiral Mullen and Brigadier General yada yada. It was all these bigwigs in one room and they were listening to everything that you had to say. They said, “OK. We’re going to take that into consideration.” It was after that that things started getting put into place to help the caregiver as well – not only to care for the wounded warrior but to care for the caregivers. Without caring for us, we can’t care for [them]. It was like a domino effect. They were trying to help us figure out the best way to protect those dominoes. It was a hell of an experience. It was an incredible opportunity. It was awesome.
RH: Very cool. If you could communicate something to the families of service members who are dealing with their wounded son or daughter, what would it be?
IT: Hang in there. Hang in there and don’t take “no” for an answer. If you feel like there is the opportunity for care for your loved one, if there’s something that you feel your loved one needs in order to help them progress or whatever, fight for it. Unfortunately, the world of a wounded warrior was not made easy for family members. I had to learn a lot of acronyms that I never knew existed. As a non-military person, the military world is a very confusing one to maneuver – even more so when your warrior is injured and unable to communicate for themselves. But it is not one that is without support for you. And people are willing to listen. It’s finding the people that are willing to listen and willing to fight for you too. Because nothing in our life post-injury has been easy. Everything has been a fight. Everything has been with, “Well, I’m not going to do that unless X, Y and Z happens.” And they fight back like, “We can’t make that happen unless this happens.” It’s a constant power struggle between DOD, VA, all of it. So don’t take a simple no for an answer. Keep trying.
I would also tell you that, unfortunately, you do have to pack on your patience. Patience is key. The road to recovery is a long one and if your loved one is unfortunate enough to have a severe traumatic brain injury, it’s even longer. Patience is important. Don’t lose hope. Don’t get false hope but don’t lose hope. Stay positive to the best of your ability. It’s not easy but stay positive. It can be a very lonely road. You will quickly find out who your friends are, who your support systems are, and you will quickly figure out who they aren’t. Don’t be afraid to delete people from your life that are just not good for your life. That, for me, was a hard pill to swallow. I lost a lot of friends through this process because, I guess, they just don’t understand that, yes, I’m still me and I’m the same person that I always have been but my priorities are different. Even though everything’s going great at home, sometimes things can quickly turn not great. I don’t know. Just don’t be afraid to get rid of the negativity in your life because you’ll find that there’s a lot of it unfortunately.
RH: Alright. Good to go. This is question is not part of your situation but I wanted to ask it. I don’t know if you’ve read but a number of 2/7 Marines have commit suicide in the last couple of years. If you could communicate something to a 2/7 Marine or Corpsman or another service member who may be contemplating suicide, what would it be?
IT: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Even if your pride gets in the way, sometimes you just have to tuck your pride away and say life is more important. Nothing is without improvement. I don’t know what it’s like to feel helpless and to get to that point to where you feel like there is nothing else you can do except take your own life. I don’t know what that’s like. I know what it’s like for loved ones who have lost people like that and it’s a hurt that never goes away. It is finite. When you do that kind of thing, it’s finite. You don’t come back from it. That’s a hard pill for a family member to swallow.
From what I understand, a lot of guys have a very good way of hiding it for a while until all of a sudden they can’t hide it anymore. A lot of times at that point, it’s too late. So don’t be afraid to ask for help. I know plenty of Marines that have put out there, “Hey guys. If you need someone to talk to that gets it, that knows what you’ve been through, that understands what you’re struggling with, here’s my number. Call me. I don’t care if I don’t know you. I’m here for you.” So it’s just a matter of reaching out. But there’s got to be something better than the finality of that. But again, I don’t know. I don’t have the answer and I don’t know how difficult it is to reach out. I don’t have those kinds of demons, I guess.
But real quick, I know it’s easier said than done. I know a lot of guys have the pride issue where they won’t go talk to a professional because [they say], “They don’t know what I’m dealing with.” And I think that’s part of the problem. I think the DOD, or the VA for the veterans – there’s a stigma for asking for help. I don’t know if that’s any different now but back in 2006, 2007, you were essentially blackballed when you asked for help. At least that was what was told to me. So it’s that fear of, “I don’t want to lose what I’ve got going on so I’m just not going to reach out.” It’s that fear of asking for help because of the consequences that might come of it. But at the same time, it’s kind of like, OK, that’s when you’re active duty. When you’re a veteran, what’s keeping you? I don’t understand that. I hate asking for help. I’m a very proud person. I don’t ask for help often but you get to the point where you realize, “OK. I literally cannot do it all.” My needs are much different from their demons, their struggles, their challenges – much different, I’m sure. But at some point you have to put your pride aside and say I can’t do it by myself. So I don’t know.
RH: What have you learned about the healing process as you’ve gone through all of this?
IT: That it’s slow. That nothing is definite. You can take a handful of people with the exact same injury – because I’m in the realm of traumatic brain injury I’m going to use that as an example – you can take five guys that have the exact same traumatic brain injury diagnosis, let’s say. Out of those five people, two of them could potentially heal and walk out of there and three of them would be like Anthony that can’t verbally communicate, that can’t do things on their own as far as activities of daily living or anything for that matter. So everybody’s body, everybody’s brain, everybody’s healing process is different. The speed at which they heal is different. The way in which they heal is different. Hell, when you’re talking about the brain, there’s fifty million different ways that you can get for an outcome. So just because this worked for one person, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to work on your person. But it doesn’t hurt to try.
So what I’ve learned is that healing is an uncertainty. I consider Anthony to have healed quite nicely. Is he where I thought he would be at this point? Looking back at when he was injured, did I think that ten years later we would be here? Hell no. That’s definitely something that the military does not prepare you for – the possible injuries that can come about from war. You know about amputees and you know about PTSD but when Anthony was injured, that’s all I knew. If he’s not dead and he’s not a POW, he’s either lost a limb or he has PTSD. That’s all I’ve known. Never would I have ever thought that how he is now would have been a possibility. So to see him ten years later be the way that he is and to see another person that started out very similar to him but is now walking, talking, back in the military, married, has a child – how is that fair? But unfortunately that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. It’s an uncertainty.
What I would also say about healing is that it’s a very loose term – healing. To me, if you say he’s all healed, he’s good to go, that means he’s up and walking and living life. But Anthony is healed. For his injuries, he is healed. Unfortunately for him, at least for now, that’s as far as it’s going to get. But he’s healthy. Hell, he’s healthier than I am. His bloodwork will prove it to you. [laughs] He’s healthy but I never would have thought that it would be such an objective thing, the world healing. Some people do it very quickly, in and out in a few months, and then we’ve got Anthony – ten years and he’s still healing. You just don’t know and I hated that. Even the doctors told me, [speaks in a deep voice] “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” I’m like, “OK.” This is a little excessive at this point. Come on now. This is one hell of a marathon. [RH laughs] But that’s what we have and we’ll keep going. We’ll keep going. We haven’t stopped yet.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Before I ask my last question, is there anything I left out at all that you would like to address?
IT: I can’t think of anything. I don’t think so. [to IE] Mom, can you think of anything? [IE shakes her head no] No.
RH: Since Anthony was injured, which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?
IT: I guess I would say, I think what I’m most proud of is just to be where we are now. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t get complimented for how well cared for Anthony is. How clean he is – little things like that that you don’t even think about. So I think my best accomplishment post-injury is keeping him as healthy as possible and raising our son to know and to appreciate the little things in life. I think some of that message has gotten lost in [AJ] but when he looks at his dad, I hope he sees that, wow, I’m a lucky kid because this shouldn’t have been. And for all intents and purposes, he’s a good kid. He’s a sweet boy. He’s got a heart of gold. He’s the most caring child in the world.
IE: Very empathetic. A lot of empathy.
IT: He’s very empathetic. He is the first to jump in and help – especially now that he’s older and he can. He helps with his dad. He wants to help feed him and pull him up in his chair and sit him up. So my greatest accomplishments are raising our son and keeping Anthony healthy.
IE: And keeping sane.
IT: And keeping sane. Keeping my sanity! [RH laughs]
IE: Her sense of humor.
IT: Oh yeah, that. I will say, my sense of humor is pretty outstanding. I’ll say – yeah. Being able to hold it all together. By all together I mean my family, my life – everything. Holding it all together.
RH: Good to go. Anything else before we wrap it up?
IT: Nah. I’m good. [laughs]
RH: Well, thank you very much!
IT: You’re very welcome!